Article abridged from “The legend of Ortega” by H.Avers PHD (Hist) University of Caracas.
Babieca Ortega (1857 – 1936) was a prodigious fisherman and fabulous chef who lived on a remote island.
His father, Alphonso Babieca Marques de los Ortega, was a wealthy Spanish grandee renowned for his epicurean taste and philandering. After losing his fortune gambling at Perudo and being accused of seducing a member of the Spanish Royal family, Alfonso, in desperation, fled Spain in 1856. He worked his passage on a small trading vessel jumping ship on Isla de Pez, an insignificant remote island off the coast of Venezuela in the Southern Caribbean .
Ortega’s mother was the daughter of a native fisherman who capitulated readily to the experienced charm of Alfonso, who shortly after, continued his wanderings and disappeared into the vastness of South America.
The story then told is that the day that Ortega was born his mother was out fishing by herself in a small boat. She had just hooked a large fish when she went into labour but not being one to give up on a good catch she carried on playing the fish which landed in the bilge at the same time as Ortega.
Whatever the truth this story sets the leitmotif for Ortega’s life. He became a consummate fisherman, the South American Davy Crocket, reputed to have caught a giant fish of the species Ursula Pisces when he was only 10 years old.
From his father Ortega inherited a love of good food and he became an expert at cooking the fish he caught and concocting recipes using wild herbs and fruit. Despite its remoteness, or perhaps because of it and romantic traveller’s tales, food lovers from far away began to visit the island to sample Ortega’s cooking. In 1887, when he was 30 years old, he opened a restaurant in an abandoned fishing shack. Some of its interior features were built from salvage taken from ships that were wrecked on the island’s notorious reef including the ceiling constructed from curved ships-timbers a zinc fronted bar and coloured glass windows.
He took an intense interest in natural history and his tropical sea shell collection was admired by conchologists .
The fame of the Ortega fish shack spread and regardless of the difficulty of getting there epicureans from around the world made the effort. Recent research has confirmed that some of the more famous visitors include:
• 1891 Paul Gauguin visited on his way to Tahiti . His painting “Cabine de Peche Isla de Pez” is one of the only known images of the Ortega shack
• 1888 Robert Louis Stevenson in the yacht “Casco” on his way to Samoa . He wrote of his experience “I never thought to eat such wondrous fare and brooded many hours as to whether I should ever leave Ortega’s magic isle”
• 1895 Joshua Slocum on his solo voyage round the world on his yacht “Spray”
• 1898 Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt (then a colonel in the Rough riders) who was sailing the Caribbean while recovering from the battle of San Juan Hill in Cuba.
• !928 Zane Grey on a fishing trip from Florida.
• 1934 Ernest Hemingway in his yacht “Pilar”. He was inspired by Ortega to write one of his most famous books “ The old man and the sea”
In 1936 Hermann Goring travelled secretly to Isla de Pez on a chartered Deutche Lufthansa sea plane. Goring, a well known gourmet, was on a mission to persuade Ortega to organize the cuisine at his newly acquired luxury mansion near Brandenburg. However Ortega, who was of mixed blood (and who had some Jewish ancestry) flatly refused to have anything to do with him.
The week after Goring’s departure the fish shack was burned down under suspicious circumstances while Ortega was on a solo fishing trip from which he never returned.
Nothing remains of his fish shack or his boat nor is there any written record of his life other than those quoted above but Mark Limacher’s new Ortega Fish Shack seeks to continue his tradition of excellent food .